University of Vermont

Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory

Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory Wraps Up a Busy Summer

The Research on Adaptation to Climate Change team enjoying a mid-summer’s cookout at the Rubenstein Laboratory.
The Research on Adaptation to Climate Change team enjoying a mid-summer’s cookout at the Rubenstein Laboratory.

The Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory on the Lake Champlain waterfront was a busy place this past summer. More than 40 staff, students, post-docs, and faculty participated in research and public education about science and Lake Champlain, including 13 undergraduate students from four different universities and four different academic units at UVM.  At times, we were bursting at the seams, with students completely filling labs and occasionally forced into hallways to read or write – a much nicer problem to have than unoccupied and unused lab space!

Much activity centered around our participation in Vermont EPSCoR’s (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) Research on Adaptation to Climate Change project. This project focused on how land use influences nutrient movement across the landscape into Lake Champlain and how these nutrients contribute to blue-green algae blooms.

Undergraduate and graduate students and post-docs led by Drs. Andrew Schroth (Geology) and Jason Stockwell (Rubenstein School), worked together to monitor environmental conditions in Missisquoi Bay, test hypotheses about what conditions lead to blue-green algae blooms, and understand how storm events may contribute to the blooms. Rubenstein School Ph.D. candidate Peter Isles secured a four-month loan of a FlowCAM from Fluid Imaging Technologies in Yarmouth, Maine. FlowCAM is the latest technology for automated analysis of water samples for counting and sizing organisms ranging from single-celled algae to large zooplankton, greatly increasing our ability to process samples and providing hands-on technology training for undergraduate students.

Lake trout research also was in full swing this summer. Lake Champlain has a tremendous fishery for lake trout, but it is entirely dependent on hatcheries because lake trout are not successfully reproducing in the lake. Larval lake trout successfully hatch out each spring but, mysteriously, are never seen again. Undergraduate and graduate students working with Dr. Ellen Marsden (Rubenstein School) conducted studies on larval lake trout diets and possible vitamin deficiencies that reduce the survival of these young lake trout in Lake Champlain. These results are being compared with similar studies in the Great Lakes. Lake trout research expanded to Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming, as Ellen was invited to participate in research efforts to control invasive lake trout that are negatively impacting the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Speaking of traveling, a number of our undergraduate students conducted research in other parts of the globe. Frances Iannucci (WFB ’14) travelled to Mongolia to conduct research on the endangered taimen, the world’s largest salmon. Becca Dillon (WFB ’15) spent the summer working as a National Science Foundation intern at the University of Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Science, where she developed a prototype ROV (remotely operated vehicle) that can sample fish using a vacuum pump. And Rachael DeWitt (ENSC ’16) worked as a research assistant out of Syracuse University, conducting studies on the Finger Lakes of New York. Frances, Becca, and Rachael used their past research experiences at the Rubenstein Laboratory to successfully compete for their summer positions and are now able to bring the skills they learned in these experiences back to the Rubenstein Lab. A win-win experience for everyone!

Several undergraduate and graduate students working with Jason conducted research on Lake Champlain’s Mysis, a shrimp-like invertebrate that grows up to an inch long, inhabits the deepest part of the lake (greater than 300 feet deep), and plays a key role in the food web. Mysis undergoes a nightly migration to the surface to feed, returning to the bottom at dawn, where it can feed on decaying organic matter. Students are asking evolutionary-based questions about why some Mysis undergo this daily migration and some do not, while other students are asking more applied questions about why Mysis population numbers declined by 10-fold since the mid-1990s.  Other students working with Jason and Dr. Jana Kraft (Animal Science) conducted research on how blue-green algae blooms may have a negative effect on fish health through disruption of essential fatty acid transfer up the food web.

Our 45-foot Research Vessel Melosira continues to be used for research as well as education programs for kids through the UVM Watershed Alliance Program. We have also expanded the Melosira’s use to engage in technology development and education. Greensea Systems, Inc. (Richmond, VT), which develops world-class software systems for unmanned underwater vehicles, has been using the Melosira to test its software systems on ROVs and AUVs (autonomously operated vehicles).

The Rubenstein Laboratory has also been partnering with Lake Champlain International (Colchester, VT) to offer several educational programs to the general public, including a Junior Scientist Program where high school students participated in active research on the lake with UVM faculty. Our “What Lies Beneath the Surface” program brought together UVM faculty and the general public to discuss important issues facing Lake Champlain as they toured the Burlington waterfront and surrounding areas on the Melosira.

An exciting research project beginning this fall examines how the many causeways that fragment Lake Champlain into isolated regions are impacting fish movement and possibly isolating fish populations from each other. Ellen and Jason will use acoustic telemetry to determine if and under what conditions fish move through the narrow, shallow openings in the causeway and genetics to reveal if fish populations in each region are changing because of reproductive isolation. Habitat fragmentation is usually a terrestrial or river issue, but the causeway system in Lake Champlain, put in place over 100 years ago, offers a unique study site to ask questions about how habitat fragmentation is affecting animal movement and population structure.

The Lab also made important strides with our partner next door, ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. We have been collaborating with ECHO on a Science Translation Fellowship in which one of our graduate students is embedded within ECHO to learn the techniques and skills of science translation to bring UVM research in front of the general public. After 10 years of minimal use of the very large window between the Rubenstein wet laboratory space and ECHO’s main entrance, we started an interactive program that uses the window to engage ECHO visitors with the science we are doing in the Rubenstein Laboratory. This has been a vision for that window since the Leahy Campus was built and the start of this collaborative program is a major milestone for both the Rubenstein Laboratory and ECHO.

Finally, a special thanks to staff, students and faculty who donated their time this summer to help serve dinners at the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen. The Rubenstein Laboratory sponsored six of these volunteer efforts over the summer, with some individuals volunteering additional time. Those who participated found the experience to be rewarding and humbling, reminding us of how fortunate we are to have jobs, education access, and opportunities.